When urban planners in Marana’s Development Services department consider new housing permits, they take a variety of considerations into account. How close is the nearest school? How can we ensure that homes are near major thoroughfares without sitting directly on a busy road? What infrastructure needs will the homes require? For a new family about to take up residence in Marana, though, the Town has chosen to ignore all these considerations.
Soon, a father, mother, and their three offspring will settle into an open clearing just south of Tangerine Road, east of Twin Peaks, and north of the soon-to-open Tangerine Sky Community Park. The family have received special permission to occupy so unorthodox a location as an open clearing. Their home will have no utilities. The structure will not be reviewed by a building inspector. In fact, there won’t even be a structure. But for this family of steel deer, Marana’s newest art installation, a patch of dirt under the open sky is all they need.
The idea for these newcomers to Marana started with Trevor O’Tool. Trevor holds a Bachelor in Fine Arts in 3-D and Expanded Media from the University of Arizona. As a welder, chaser, and metal processer, he has constructed bronze sculptures to be incorporated into the work of other artists. He founded a clothing company in Lake Havasu City and exhibited sculptures throughout Tucson. And a few evenings each week, he’s a hooker.
“Basically, my job is to hook the ball back during scrums,” explains Trevor, with a bashful grin. “And whenever the ball goes out of bounds, I throw it back in during line outs.” Trevor has been the hooker for the Tucson Magpies, a recreational rugby club, since he graduated from the UA four years ago.
In fact, it was through rugby that Trevor met Angela Wagner-Gabbard, a resident of Marana and a member of the Marana Citizens’ Forum subcommittee on public art. In 2014, the five-member subcommittee provided guidance to the Town Council on how best to execute the Transportation Art by Youth Grant, a program sponsored by the Pima Association of Governments, which provides resources to incorporate art into transportation projects. The grant enables art-oriented youth organizations to collaborate with professional artists to design projects that help beautify a variety of infrastructure improvements. Angela encouraged Trevor to submit a proposal, and after a lengthy review process, Marana, for the first time ever, hired a hooker.
Marana’s new art installation will be part of the improvements along Tangerine Road between Dove Mountain and Thornydale Roads. In reviewing a variety of proposals, Marana’s grant reviewers, including the subcommittee of the Citizens’ Forum, wanted to see a design that reflected the natural environment of this setting. This arterial road connects northern Marana and Oro Valley with Interstate 10, crossing just south of the Tortolita Mountains. The wildlife that inhabits these mountains includes several species of megafauna which enjoy an elevated status in the popular imagination. Mountain lions prowl these canyons, wild horses lope through the saguaro forest, and mule deer bound up the steep slopes. Lots and lots of mule deer.
Those deer are what Trevor had in mind when he proposed his sculpture. “The solicitation for this project indicated that Marana wanted a design that referenced the Native American history of this site. The Hohokam used to live in the Tortolitas, and when I learned that they associated the deer with ideas like gentleness and innocence, I decided to go in that direction. Right now, Marana is building Tangerine Sky Park nearby, and eventually, there will also be a school in this area. I think the Hohokam symbolism of deer will really fit nicely in this setting.”
When Marana staff and members of the Forum subcommittee saw his design, they couldn’t help but agree. The image of a massive doe and buck, leading a family of three fawns, captured the imagery they had hoped for. Trevor received overwhelming approval to move forward with his design.
Trevor O'Tool's proposed sketch of deer.
Constructing five oversized deer that can withstand temperature extremes, powerful monsoon rains, and driving winds presented Trevor with a daunting challenge. Fortunately, the very premise of the grant funding his work meant that he did not have to meet that challenge alone. The language of the grant requires that at least 20% of the funding support youth stipends, and the Career and Technical Education program of Marana Unified School District offered the perfect talent pool for completing the project. Marana High School’s welding program prepares students to pursue careers in metal fabrication, and its graduates have gone on to work with companies like Sierra Mining and Crushing, JB Steel, and CAID Industries. Trevor’s design proposed constructing the deer from flat sheets of steel cut into triangles, and so a collaboration with MHS’s welding program was a natural fit. Ken Webb, who runs the welding program, was eager to facilitate this opportunity for his students.
“It’s a cool project to be a part of,” Ken shouted recently over the din of grinders and welders loudly crafting a metallic fawn. “This sculpture is going to be around for years to come, and these kids may eventually take their kids to see this sculpture. It’s really gratifying for all of us to have that experience.”
Randy Chambliss, a recent graduate of Marana High, smooths out a section of the fawn's head.
Since the students first began this project in the summer of 2016, they’ve had to strategize with Ken and Trevor to figure out how exactly to translate an artist’s sketch into a set of towering steel sculptures.
“It’s kind of like building a Lego set, except a grown-up version,” says John Campbell, who started working on this project as a senior and has stayed with the team since he graduated last year. And although welding is most often associated with flying sparks and molten metals, as John and his classmates have learned in the welding program, the first step requires long hours in front of a computer screen. That’s because projects like this one are first designed in SolidWorks, a 3D design software program that creates a digital model of the final design. The students then used the school’s 3D printer to create a physical miniature of the final sculpture.
The deer model (with broken ear) stands in the shadow of its substantially larger facsimile.
Finally, once that model matches the intended specifications, the students must translate those dimensions into their Computer Numerical Control (CNC) Plasma Cam. The CNC Plasma Cam is the industry standard for cutting sheet metal with absolute precision, slicing through the metal with far greater accuracy than is possible with a handheld cutter.
John Campbell checks measurements in the software program that operates the CNC Plasma Cam.
Once the Marana High team had cut out all 295 plates for the first deer, they began the arduous process of assembling them into a sculpture. The first step of that process required tack welding the plates together, a technique that holds the pieces together temporarily.
This stage, John admitted, was more challenging than expected. “Anytime you go from a digital design to a physical design, you’re going to find differences between theory and reality.” In this case, one issue they encountered arose from as small a difference as 1/8 inch.
In SolidWorks, Ken explained, they didn’t account for the width of each plate. That minor discrepancy turned out to create a compounding problem as the plates did not fit as neatly together in the welding shop as they did on the computer screen. Through careful troubleshooting and teamwork between the MHS team and Trevor, the team was able to make the necessary adjustments to fit all the pieces together without having to start over from scratch.
“That’s a really valuable lesson for these kids to learn,” recalled Ken. “This project requires a lot of critical thinking and problem-solving. They’re learning the computer side of programming to make and cut the parts. They’re learning to apply the skills they learned in my classes, and they’re taking them to the next level. They’re not being treated as students anymore, but rather like this is a job and this is their workplace.”
While the students at Marana High School are building the three fawns, Trevor is taking on the buck, the largest member of the family. With shoulders measuring six feet tall and antlers rising to well over twelve feet, this enormous sculpture dwarfs the array of heavy machinery scattered across the University of Arizona studio where he works. Occasionally, Trevor will have to climb onto its back just to do a quick spot weld on its head.
Trevor O'Tool astride the deer and Eric Norman at its feet.
Fortunately, Trevor has help in the workshop. Shop Tech Eric Norman has been heavily involved throughout the project’s construction, and is bringing his own expertise to help ensure a well-crafted final product. With a masters in fine arts from Washington State University and a degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Eric is well acquainted with the challenges and constraints, as well as the benefits, of executing projects like this one.
“I think it’s hugely important for public institutions to prioritize art in the community,” says Eric, sitting in the shadow of the immense buck. “Art is a community need. In the same way that people need smooth roads, they need public art around them.” For Eric, then, it makes sense that the Tangerine Road improvement project is incorporating both of these priorities.
Trevor smooths out one section of the deer with a grinder.
When the family of deer is complete, it will occupy a strip near the southeast corner of Tangerine Road and Camino de Oeste. Nearby, Marana is currently constructing Tangerine Sky Park. While there will be no direct connection between the sculptures and the park, Trevor and the members of the MHS team all look forward to seeing the public physically interact with the deer.
“Kids are going to want to climb all over these, and honestly, I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t,” laughs Trevor. “Of course, parents should be there to make sure they don’t fall, but I believe that art like this is best experienced not just by looking at it, but by touching it, and yes, even playing on it.”
Trevor’s playful demeanor shines through in other projects of his, including a manikin laden head to foot with life jackets cautiously approaching a kiddy pool.
Err on the Side of Caution. 2014. Source: trevorotool.com/works
Trevor has subtly put his sense of humor to work on these deer sculptures, as well. While he isn’t committing to a final name for the piece quite yet, he’s considering the title “Deer in Headlights.” That is, after all, what the deer will be every night, standing beside Tangerine Road.
The final sculpture is anticipated to be completed and installed this summer. Tom Houle, a construction manager for the Town of Marana, is overseeing the Tangerine roadwork and working with the sculpture team to figure out exactly how and where to place the deer.
The location of the sculpture, he explains, is perfect for a number of reasons. “This is an elevated site, so the deer will really stand out, even from a distance. Of course, this is also deer country. We incorporated deer crossings into the Twin Peaks project a few years ago, and Phase 2 of the Tangerine project will also have a deer crossing west of Dove Mountain.” It’s factors like these that get Tom excited to see the final installation in situ.
When Marana hired part-time hooker, full-time artist Trevor O’Tool, the Town made a crucial investment in the community’s infrastructure, albeit in a non-traditional sense. Roads help get families to school, water systems deliver safe drinking water, and roadside art integrates a sense of creativity and fun into the fabric of the community. It’s what inspires us to expect our public spaces to be not just functional, but joyful. And it turns out, it isn’t always hard to conjure up that joy. Sometimes, all it takes is a family of five deer by the side of the road.